Leadership Insight

Virtual School Leader Insight

by Mark Sivy, Ed.D.

Throughout my research on virtual school leaders, the participant responses provided some insight into their personal leadership traits, approaches, and styles. More specifically, the following open-ended question directly sought this information:

What are your thoughts on the senior leadership approach for a virtual school?

interview

So what I found as a whole, rather than directly talking about themselves, the leaders typically responded to these questions by citing practical examples about their operations and their interactions with their school and staff. The following is a breakdown and discussion of the findings.

Authority

Some leaders brought up this topic when they expressed having a lack of authority or input regarding most of the state and local school district policies related to the virtual school and the use of its services. A few other comments were made concerning authority within the virtual schools. In these instances, the leaders preferred to work with and make decisions as a team, but that they would step in with authority when needed. This is aligned with Carreno (2009) who states that the lines of authority should exist, but that concept development and decision making should be done as a team.

Forward Thinking

Both directly and indirectly, the leaders made statements about monitoring trends and innovations, preparing for the future, and looking for new opportunities. Also brought up was the concept of being a change agent, by which the leader would be open to creativity, new ideas, different directions, and calculated risks.

change agent

Personal Motivations and Interests

The most consistent and heartfelt motivation for the virtual school leaders was their dedication to the students. These leaders were authentically concerned about the students, their learning, and their well-being. Some of the leaders expressed having previous enjoyment as a classroom teacher in a traditional school and view their leadership position as a continuation of that role. Others stated that they wished they had the opportunity to teach in an online setting. Other intrinsic incentives were the leadership role itself, working with curriculum and instruction, being on a leading edge of education, and facilitating education using technology.

Role Approach

These leaders maintained an arsenal of personal tactics, strategies, and methodologies that were used in addressing the large number of different leadership challenges and responsibilities. Their approaches were determined by the people, circumstances, limitations, and resources that were involved.

Final Thoughts

In addressing their virtual school leadership demands, the most common characteristics were for the leaders to be dynamic, adaptable, open, and agile.

Reflection Point – ““I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”    ~Mother Teresa

Reference

Carreno, I. (2009). E-mentoring and e-leadership importance in the quality of distance and virtual education Century XXI. Retrieved from the Multimedia, Information and Communication Technologies in Education website.

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Virtual School External Communication

Virtual School External Communication

by Mark Sivy

This is a continuing report of a recent research study’s findings.

Effective unambiguous external communication is essential to the operation of a virtual school. Recent research indicates that for virtual school leaders, the means of external communication are more conventional than for internal communication (see previous post) and usually involve email exchanges or phone conversations. The leaders also engage in a variety of face-to-face external interactions including one-on-one conversations, private group meetings, and public events. The findings associated with this topic have been categorized as general external communication, guardian communication, post-secondary education communication, school district communication, vendor communication, representing the virtual school, feedback and input, and marketing.

Communication Land line Communication

 

General External Communications

Even though internal staff receive training and mentoring to engage in intentional and meaningful communications, the individuals who are outside of the school do not. This means that special attention must be given by leaders to ensure proper perception of both outgoing and incoming messages.

Prepared leaders have communication plans and staff responsibilities in place for the schools’ external communications. This includes planning regularly scheduled communications as well as making preparations for unscheduled communications in cases such as virtual school related news, service disruptions, and emergencies.

Guardian communications

Given the diversity of students who attend virtual schools, it’s helpful in addressing the needs of the learners if leaders ensure communication and collaboration with parents (Belair, 2012; Garland, 2011). Communication with guardians is often intended to provide one-way sharing of information. Some leaders receive responses from these broadcasts that are either questions or expressions of appreciation. Two-way individual communication usually resulted from guardians having some concern about a student’s performance, a course, or an instructor.

Parent CommunicationSome issues with communications resulted from the guardians having too many options for communication. The first task was for them to determine with whom they were to communicate, whether it be someone at the home school, the virtual school instructor, or some other virtual school staff member. The next challenge was for the guardian to determine how to communicate with these individuals. This was usually either via email or phone, which often required the guardian to locate an email address or phone number. The school leader’s task was to have these processes streamlined as much as possible.

Post-secondary education communications

As the virtual schools expand their offerings and advantages, some leaders have started to communicate and form partnerships with colleges, universities, and technical schools. Typically this is to arrange courses to be delivered with the purpose of offering dual credit.

School district communications

This was the most common form of external communication that was discussed by the participants. As the leaders moved forward with the growth and acceptance of their schools, the student’s physical home school districts seemed to be the best venue to establish a virtual school’s brand and to gain virtual school champions. Depending upon the purpose, these communications were either with the home school (teachers, counselors, principals, or other assigned contact persons) or district offices (district coordinators, superintendents, etc.). These communications ranged from regular updates and announcements to being conversations about specific topics such as ensuring the local schools that the virtual school courses were aligned to standards. Depending upon the purpose or message, these virtual school leaders either communicate directly with the home districts or had a staff member make contact. The leaders typically are personally involved in communications with higher level school district representatives such as school principals or district office administrators.

Vendor communications

The leaders of some schools, typically the ones with smaller enrollments, deal more frequently with vendors. In the larger schools the leader has less frequent dealings with vendors, either because the leader has staff to perform the needed school services in-house or staff who communicated with the vendors. The leader’s role in vendor communications is to ensure that the virtual school provided the most reliable services they could afford.

Representing the virtual school

Virtual school leaders are involved in an assortment of meetings, conferences, committees, and other gatherings external to their schools. Depending upon the function, these could include their peers, vendors, media, government officials, school district administrators, special interest groups, and persons with an interest or stake in virtual schools. During some of these events, leaders find themselves educating participants on the nuances of a virtual school. At other events, the leaders contribute to peer conversations, leveraged the expertise that was present, and advocated for their schools.

Feedback and input

Virtual school leaders use outward facing surveys, assessments, and evaluations for the purpose of enhancing their schools’ operations and offerings. The data are acquired from different sources, such as parents, home school districts, and advisory groups. The tactics included random emails, public forums, annual school surveys, and receiving input from advisory groups. The general sense from leaders is that response rates are lower than they preferred and that they sought ways to improve this.

MarketingMarketing

To a certain extent, virtual schools are a business that must promote themselves to remain sustainable. Each of the leaders presented an ongoing concern for the acceptance and growth of their schools. Getting the messages out extended from simple word of mouth to having marketing representatives who traveled a state. Their efforts involved branding their school, advertising school offerings, maintaining a positive public image, making press releases, and pushing out communications. Brand recognition takes time to develop but it serves as an important tool in the marketing of a school (Berridge, Henry, Jackson, & Turney, 2009).

The amount of marketing is in large part determined by operational guidelines and the missions of the virtual school. Those schools whose charter limited their scope or that received sufficient funding were less involved in certain aspects of marketing than those that had a broader scope and a greater latitude in determining their own operations, or were seeking additional sources of funding.

Reflection Point – ““The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw

 

References

Belair, M. (2012). The investigations of virtual school communications. Tech Trends, August, 26-33.

Berridge, D, Henry, L., Jackson, S., and Truney, D. (2009). Looking after and learning: Evaluation of the virtual school head pilot.

Garland, V. (2011). Leading an Online School. S. Huffman, S. Albritton, B. Wilmes, & W. Rickman (Eds.), Cases on Building Quality Distance Delivery Programs: Strategies and Experiences (pp.109-121). doi: 10.4018/978-1-60960-111-9.

Virtual School Internal Communication

Virtual School Internal Communication

by Mark Sivy

As the leader of an online, virtual school, or cyber school, attention to communication between co-located and geographically separated individuals requires a heightened level of importance and skill. In a recent study I performed on leaders of virtual schools, the participants’ continual return to the communication topic throughout the interview process highlighted communication as one of the most essential and influential components of their leadership. The data analysis revealed two differentiated areas of communication – internal and external.

virtual school communicationThis blog post examines aspects related to internal communication, which were categorized as being general internal communication, central office employee communication, and at-a-distance employee communication. Almost all study responses involved at-a-distance and electronic forms of communication through emails, phone calls, online meetings, learning management systems, and instant and text messaging. The leaders involved in the study said communicating through the various media presented challenges in terms of ensuring that they were done correctly, clearly, and effectively. If these criteria were met, the leaders indicated that contemporary methods of electronic communications were seen to be advantageous over previous in-person ones. The participants also cited having face-to-face conversations, typically when employees were within a short walking distance of each other, such as in and adjacent office or cubicle.

General Communication

The means of and approaches to communication in a virtual school are different than in a traditional one. In a traditional setting, general internal communications are often done Technologyaccording to a daily schedule, are commonly unidirectional, and are often asynchronously viewed, heard, and given response. The majority of the participants felt communication that occurs in a virtual school is more immediate, dynamic, frequent, and closer to real-time than in a traditional physical setting. The leaders were able to leverage at-a-distance electronic communication in a manner that promoted the overall importance of communication, the need for clarity of communication, the unique uses of communication, and the value that communication has to the school team and community. The media used for internal communication were varied and depended upon the geographic relationship of those who were in contact and the purpose of the communication.

Most leaders alluded to the fact that there is a heightened sense of importance placed on communication within an online school due to the geographic distances between staff. One profound comment that sums up the feeling of many was, “Communication, communication, communication. I don’t think we can communicate enough.”

Central Office Employee Communication

The leaders reported communicating with co-located staff in a variety of ways that were purpose specific. There were standing times set for face-to-face meetings with all central office staff, with these typically happening on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. Many of the leaders supplemented these meetings with the use of online meeting systems to connect with those staff who were unable to attend in-person.

The participants also used various means to communicate with those staff that they were more dependent upon and had to speak with more frequently. Each relationship developed a favored online meeting systemform of communication. Being dependent upon proximity, time, and purpose, the common avenues of interaction would involve walking to an office to talk, calling someone by phone, sending an email, using an online meeting system, or using instant messaging. Even in a common physical setting, the sense from the leaders was that the availability of these at-a-distance electronic communication often allowed more responsive and frequent communication and a greater openness than they experienced with in-person discussions.

At-a-Distance Employee Communication

Communications with these employees (typically faculty) involved some sort of electronic medium, most commonly email, instant messaging, and content sharing via intranet. When compared to a single location organization, there were more frequent and more random communications with employees, both individually and as teams. Some leaders noted that at-a-distance communication increased the amount of communication between employees, thus creating a greater sense of support and team effort.

virtual team leadershipMany study participants described communication strategies as being based on the importance of the messages and types of information. The leaders wanted to manage communication in a manner that reduced the burden on employees to keep up with the volume of communications. Messaging systems were used for quick input from an individual, content management systems typically served as a repository for both reference materials and current information. Emails were often used as a means for personal and team communication or specific requests.

Reflection Point – “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” ~ Tony Robbins

Virtual Team Leadership

Virtual Team Leadership

by Mark Sivy

Virtual team leadership skills are a useful, if not necessary, asset that many leaders may overlook developing or may not effectively execute. The increased globalization of people, services and economic activity that is being facilitated by the rapid development of Internet communication and collaboration technologies has led to an exponential increase in the need for functional virtual teams and organizations (Caulat, 2006; Zhang, Fjermestad, & Tremaine, 2005). This encroachment of virtual activities into the workplace and markets necessitates that leaders understand and embrace it.

virtual team leadershipPerceptions of Leaders

Boje and Rhodes (2005) stated that due to mass media, leaders and leadership that are not directly seen can become virtualized and the virtual leader becomes a construct in the minds of those who follow or are impacted by the leader. To employees, clients, teachers, students, and other virtual community members who do not encounter a leader face-to-face, the leader takes on a distinct character based upon the information they receive. The leader’s persona is created from the individual perceptions and interpretations of virtually exhibited leader variables such as mannerisms, gestures, tones, words, actions, reactions, and styles. For this reason, it is important for leaders to mitigate misperceptions and incorrect beliefs by being careful, clear, intentional and communicative.

Challenges

Being perceived in a desired way can be made more intimidating by the fact that the virtual environment can be subject to the following unique barriers and challenges that have been identified by leaders of virtual teams (DeRosa 2009):

  1. Having infrequent face-to-face contact as a team
  2. Lacking necessary resources
  3. Building a collaborative atmosphere
  4. Lacking time to focus on leading the team
  5. Evolving and shifting team and organizational priorities
  6. Having more work than the team can handle
  7. Managing poor performers
  8. Experiencing situations in which team members can dedicate only a portion of their time to the team (p. 10)

These challenges are not insurmountable and can be addressed by developing leaders to have the necessary capacities and capabilities to perform effectively in their specific environment and conditions.

virtual teamVirtual Teams

Just as with different face-to-face work structures and environments, there are specific best practices and techniques that can be more or less effective in a virtual setting. Duarte and Tennant-Snyder (1999) recognize seven basic types of unique virtual teams with members who work across distance, time, and organizational boundaries. These team types are:

  1. Networked teams – diffuse, fluid, and sometimes dissociated members collaborate to achieve a common goal
  2. Parallel teams – a short-term working team with a distinct membership which makes recommendations concerning a special function or task
  3. Project or product development teams – a decision-making team which exists for a defined period of time to produce a specific outcome
  4. Work or production teams – these are usually recognized as organizational units which have a specific regular and ongoing work function
  5. Service teams – these consist of multiple teams which function to provide around-the-clock operations
  6. Management teams – members are located globally but work collaboratively to lead an organization
  7. Action teams – members of these teams provide immediate responses when needed, often in emergency situations or short-term times of need (pp. 2-5)

It’s important regardless of the type of team that virtual team members are aware of, are prepared for, and understand the challenges that each situation and work dynamic presents. It is the leader’s responsibility to identify the type of teams they have, need, or want and to proceed accordingly.

Reflection Point – “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” ~ Babe Ruth

 

References

Boje, D. & Rhodes, C. (2005). The virtual leader construct: The mass mediatization and simulation of transformational leadership. Leadership, 1, 407-428.

Caulat, G. (2006, August). Virtual leadership. The Ashridge Journal.

DeRosa, D. (2009). Virtual success: The keys to effectiveness in leading from a distance. Leadership in Action, 28(6), 9-11.

Duarte, D. & Tennant-Snyder, N. (1999). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed.

Zhang, S., Fjermestad, J., & Tremaine, M. (2005). Leadership styles in virtual team context: Limitations, solutions and propositions. Proceeding of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Virtual School Technology Leadership

Instructional Technology Leadership in the Virtual School

by Mark Sivy

In today’s virtual school learning environment, educational leaders play a crucial role in the ability of the school’s community to adopt and adapt to the purposeful use of technology (Timperly, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007; Wang, 2009). An increased responsibility has been placed upon leaders by the 21st Century Skills movement, which centers on ensuring that students acquire the academic, cognitive and technological skills necessary for a post-industrialist globalized society. In relation to this, Jones, Fox, and Levin (2011) highlighted four educational strategies that are necessary to prepare students for life in the new world setting: building a 21st century infrastructure for equity, innovation, and improvement; supporting educator effectiveness; developing and scaling innovative learning models; and preparing all students for college and 21st century careers. For virtual school leaders, these strategies involve tasks such as maintaining a required technology infrastructure, facilitating educational communities of practice, supporting the online blended learning, and enabling collaborative learning.

21st Century Skills

from Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Technology Infrastructure

Without an adequate technology infrastructure, the intentional use of technology for learning could be an exercise in futility and frustration. A virtual school senior leader must plan for and fund technology infrastructure, including hardware, software, online systems and digital connectivity. This requires having technical staff that can provide services ranging from system repair to individual user assistance. The leader must also safeguard that this technology infrastructure parallels the learning infrastructure by ensuring that the use of technology helps in establishing, maintaining, and supporting learning contexts, learning content, and a facilitative school culture (Jameson, 2013).

Teacher and Staff Professional Development

Senior leaders are responsible for developing the professional capacity of their school in relation to the use of technology. School leaders must acknowledge that this preparation should incorporate initial training, ongoing professional development and communities of practice, and developmental checkpoints. Additionally, these development opportunities must ensure that pedagogical practices are aligned with and make meaningful use of the instructional technology.

Professional Development

School Senior Leader Professional Development

It’s not only important for leaders to be aware of the implications and responsibilities associated with good teacher professional development, but leaders themselves must also be sufficiently familiar with online learning technologies. Whale (2003) found that administrators who had received technology training were better at optimizing the use of technology for learning and were stronger leaders in general. This development is best done over time since it involves not only the acquisition of skills, but also the changing of attitudes and beliefs with respect to technology’s role in educational processes. Macaulay and Wizer (2010) determined that senior leaders move through a hierarchy of skills that develop gradually based upon experience and that training should occur accordingly and in support of these stages.

Technology Planning

TechnologyIn turn, a school administrator who is properly trained should be able to effectively create both short-term and long-term plans for the implementation of instructional technologies, online learning, and associated learning models. These plans would incorporate sequenced and paced rollouts that are scalable, adaptive, and sustainable. Jones, Fox, and Levin (2011) stated that successful planning will help to address education priorities, yet allow for flexibility and adaptability. These practices may also involve effecting or altering policy in ways that will build the necessary organizational capacities over time.

Reflection Point – “It is not about the technology; it’s about sharing knowledge and information, communicating efficiently, building learning communities and creating a culture of professionalism in schools. These are the key responsibilities of all educational leaders”. ~ Marion Ginapolis

 

References

Jameson, J. (2013). e-Leadership in higher education: The fifth “age” of educational technology research. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44, 889-915.

Jones, R. Fox, C., & Levin, D. (2011). State Technology Leadership Essential for 21st Century Learning, Annual report SETDA.

Macaulay, L. & Wizer, D. (2010). Elementary principals as technology instructional leaders. Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2010, 2008-2017.

Timperly, H. Wilson, A., Barrar, H. & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development. Best evidence synthesis iteration [BES]. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Wang, C. (2009). Technology leadership among school principals: A technology coordinators perspective. Asian Social Science, 6(1), 51-54.

Whale, D. (2003). The new technology standards for school administrators: Findings from the first large-scale survey of high school principals. Connections, 5.

Traditional School Leadership

Virtual School Leadership Has Its Roots in the Traditional School Setting

by Mark Sivy

Throughout the history of American education, the responsibilities of the school principal have evolved and become more complex. Despite the importance of this role when compared to other aspects of schools and district-level administration, relatively little historical research has been done on this position (Kafka, 2009; Rousmaniere, 2007).

Traditional SchoolUntil the early 1980s, school leaders had been viewed as managers of operations and programs (Irwin, 2002; Kafka, 2009; Rousmaniere, 2007). In 1983 with the release of A Nation at Risk, new demands and a greater emphasis were placed on the role of the school leader. With this publication calling for major school improvement efforts, the traditional roles of school leaders began rapidly evolving to meet the additional responsibilities and pressures of reform that were being placed on them. With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in 2001, there was the additional expectation for these administrators to provide strong instructional leadership.

Student AchievementSince the NCLB legislation, research has supported the assertion that increased effectiveness of school senior leadership is directly related to higher student achievement (Bottoms & Fry, 2009; Leithwood & Jantzi, 2008; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2004). Research has also indicated that only the classroom teacher has a greater impact on traditional school success (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). In the case of the school leader, how they execute their leadership can also influence their effectiveness. Mitello, Fusarelli, Alsbury, and Warren (2013) determined that there are three categories of leadership practice that are most prevalent in achieving intended school outcomes – collaboration focus, policy focus, and vision focus.

Based on different researchers’ analyses of data from the Learning from Leadership Project, Wahlstrom (2008) identified four emergent themes that influence leader success when facilitating reform with the goal of improving student achievement:

  • School context is key in any attempt to view and manage leadership.
  • Relationships between leaders and those being led are neither linear nor uni-dimensional, meaning a more distributed and lateral distribution of responsibility and power.
  • Belief systems, such as efficacy and trust, appear as powerful factors to enable leadership efforts to take hold.
  • Most effects of educational leadership on student achievement are indirect. (p. 593)

School PrinicipalAdditionally, the success of academic reform efforts and the adaptation to educational changes and innovations depends largely on local leadership being effective in gaining cooperation and in providing support (Bottoms & Fry, 2009; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Murphy & Datnow, 2003). Bottoms and Fry (2009) found that senior leaders who were most effective in implementing reform were empowered to do such and able to work collaboratively with a district office that loosely controlled the process.

LearningReflection Point – You can have great teachers, but if you don’t have a good principal, you won’t have a good school. ~Eli Broad

 

References

Bottoms, G. & Fry, B. (2009). The district leadership challenge: Empowering principals to improve teaching and learning. Retrieved from the Southern Regional Education Board website: http://publications.sreb.org/2009/09V11_District_Leadership_Challenge_color.pdf.

Irwin, P. (2002). Life’s playbook. October, 3(2), 41-45.

Kafka, J. (2009). The principalship in historical perspective. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 318-330.

Leithwood, K. & Jantzi, D. (2008). Linking leadership to student learning: The contributions of leader efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 496-528.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). Review of research: How leadership influences student learning. Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, University of Minnesota and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

Mitello, M., Fusarelli, B., Alsbury, T., & Warren, T. (2013). How professional standards guide practice for school principals. International Journal of Educational Management, 27(1), 74-90.

Murphy, J. & Datnow A. (2003). The development of comprehensive school reform. In J. Murphy & A. Datnow (Eds.), Leadership Lessons from Comprehensive School Reforms (pp. 3-17). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student    outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 635-674.

Rousmaniere, K. (2006). Go to the principal’s office: Toward a social history of the school principal in North America. History of Education Quarterly, 47(1), 1-22.

Wahlstrom, K. (2008). Leadership and learning: What these articles tell us. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 593-597.

Waters, T., Marzano, R.J., & McNulty, B. (2004). McRELs’ balanced leadership framework: Developing the science of educational leadership. Retrieved from http://www.mdecgateway.org/olms/data/resource/4878/0404mcrel.pdf.

Administrator Research

Exploratory Study of the Leadership Characteristics of a Virtual School Administrator

by Mark Sivy

Call For Participants

A doctoral candidate at NOVA Southeastern University’s Department of Education is looking for individuals to participate in an administrator research study that will look at the Leadership Characteristics of a Virtual School Administrator. This study will be paramount in determining the leadership and management skills an individual will need to successfully govern in a virtual learning environment and the beneficiaries of this study will include stakeholders such as the next generation of virtual school administrators, human resources, and policy makers.

administrator researchThey are looking for individuals that meet the following criteria:

1. Over 18 years old.
2. Administrator of a virtual school community (i.e. Principals, Directors, CEOs).
3. Bachelors or Graduate Degree.
4. Professional experience in the field of education.

virtual school leaderAs a participant you will be asked to participate in a short fifteen (15) minutes interview (in person, telephone, or via Skype). Please note information given by all participants will be coded and kept confidential.

If you’re interested in participating and are a member of iNACOL, please log into the Member Forum and find this under General Announcements. If you’re not a member, please enter a comment and I’ll find a way for you to contact the researcher. Thanks.